Sexual Harassment Inside Law Firms
Written by Alexis McKenna
January 23, 2018
If there’s one message we’ve learned as a result of the #metoo movement is that sexual harassment thrives in every industry, including within law firms. Women throughout the legal industry–attorneys, staff and vendors–have had to put up with an “old boys club” that perpetuates sexist stereotypes, unwanted sexual advances, and worse.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that roughly 33 million U.S. women have been sexually harassed—and 14 million sexually abused—in work-related episodes. Tragically, 95% of those women report that male perpetrators of such abuse often go unpunished. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that 75% of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported altogether, and of those who do come forward, 75% experience some form of retaliation.
While many in the legal industry would like to think we know, and act, better, this is just not the case. Some of the attorneys accused actually practice employment law and have represented victims and perpetrators – they know this area of the law inside and out, and they certainly should know how to behave. However, this is as much a cultural problem as it is a legal one, which has existed for decades within many law firms. There are all sorts of horror stories about partners making lewd comments during meetings, making sexual advances during office outings and even interfering with a female attorney’s career track because she did not comply with sexual requests. Making matters worse, other attorneys and partners at the firm rarely speak up in defense of the victimized woman, and so by their silence they are allowing the behavior to continue.
Several stories from large corporate law firms recently came to light, which demonstrated just how dysfunctional this environment can be even when knowledgeable attorneys are present. In one instance, a senior associate at a large law firm with offices in 20 countries went on social media to announce her resignation, calling the legal industry male-dominated. The young woman claimed to have encountered “blatant gender discrimination, sexual harassment and a very clear glass ceiling” during her near decade-long employment at the firm. The firm countered, pointing out that 12 of the most recent 29 partner promotions at the firm were women.
In another instance, a jury ruled in February of 2015 that Faruqi & Faruqi LLP and senior partner Juan Monteverde were partially liable for creating a hostile work environment. A former attorney filed a lawsuit against the firm and its partner after she was sexually assaulted. She accused Monteverde of subjecting her to unwanted requests for oral sex, making vulgar jokes in front of coworkers and sexually assaulting her after a drunken holiday party. She was awarded only $140,000 by that jury.
In another instance, a former associate at a law firm filed a sexual harassment and gender bias lawsuit against her employer alleging she was sexually harassed as a summer associate and assigned work only because a partner wanted to set her up with his favorite male associate.
The list of stories as egregious or worse is horrifyingly long, and demonstrates just how difficult life is for women working in the legal field.
The #metoo movement needs to have a significant impact in the legal field along with the rest of society. Too many women have to practice law surrounded by predators who go unpunished, making life and work nearly impossible. Now is the time for change and for the brave work of countless women to create a completely new and open culture.